Friday, January 6, 2017

John Hay to Miss Mary Ridgely, January 22, 1863

Executive Mansion,
Washington, Jan. 22, 1863.

I suppose you have long before this decided that I was never again to be believed or trusted, it has been so long since you kindly gave me permission to send you these books. But I am not so much to blame as you would think. I have made myself a nuisance at the book-stores asking for them ever since I returned. The demand for them, Mr. Philp informs me, has been so great that the supply was temporarily exhausted and I have been compelled to wait until now for a complete set.

I have just finished reading the entire work. I think nothing approaching it in sustained excellence has been written in our day. It is a great novel, a splendid historical monogram, a brilliant theological disquisition, and a profound treatise of political philosophy. No man in our day has thought it worth while to use the vehicle of fiction for the transmission of such weighty and portentous truths. No philosopher or statesman has had sufficient grace and vigor of imagination to envelope his ideas in a garb so attractive, and no novelist has been gifted with that strength and scope of intellect which would enable him to grasp with so firm a hand the gravest problems of society and progress. In delicacy and fervor of fancy and depth of pathos, in sustained and unflagging power, and in absolute mastery of the machinery of artistic construction, I have read nothing that can even be brought into comparison with it.1

Of course there will be many things in it which you will not approve, and many which you will not understand fully until you have finished the book; and even then if you are dissatisfied, it is not with the author but with society and the great social wrongs against which he is a crusader.

I envy you heartily, Miss Mary, the leisure which you are to devote to this wonderful book. I deeply regretted the quiet and “the tranquil mind,” with which I should have read it in Springfield a year or two ago.

Very truly your friend as then and there.

1 The French edition of “Les Miserables.”

SOURCES: Clara B. Hay, Letters of John Hay and Extracts from Diary, Volume 1, p. 70-2;  Michael Burlingame, Editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 30-1.

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